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Paper Trails

For the "Just A Minute Challenge"

By Geoffrey Philp Published 3 months ago Updated 3 months ago 5 min read

Sitting at the desk in my room at the Çırağan Palace Kempinski, I hold the letter--feeling the rough paper between my fingers. It has taken twenty years for this letter from David to arrive, and it has found me in a hotel in Istanbul, where I'm to receive a silver medal for my latest book on climate change.

I sink into the plush armchair, surrounded by scattered notes from the speech I’m about to deliver. The faint scent of tulips mingles with the crisp hotel air. But it’s the view that I love. Through the floor-to-ceiling windows, Istanbul's skyline stretches before me with ancient domes and minarets of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, which I’ve fallen in love with during my stay.

I hadn't intended to bring the letter with me, but my wife, without telling me, had stuck it between the sleeves of my jacket. I am already homesick and missing her, but her mother had a relapse of sickle cell complications, and as the eldest child, she had to take care of her mother.

"I'm sorry you can't come with me," I'd said before leaving. "Maybe next time I'll win the gold."

"Marcus, you are gold,” she'd said.

From my room, overlooking the Bosphorus, I can see the Lamartine House, where my hero, James Baldwin, once lived. I imagine him gazing out at the same view, drawing inspiration from Istanbul's blend of Eastern and Western cultures so he could return to America with fire in his belly.

My hands tremble as I hold the envelope up to the light. I try to get a hint about what’s inside, but I can't see through the yellowed paper. My heart is pounding through my shirt-- a drumbeat that drowns the air conditioner's hum. My throat goes dry, and I swallow hard.

Angela Thompson, a graduate student finishing her dissertation on David Lawrence, my mentor, had sent me the letter. David had been more than a mentor in high school. I had studied every book he had written, mastering his style until I discovered my voice. But that was years after I’d left Jamaica and my last letter to him pleading with him for an answer, “Am I a writer?”

Angela had found the letter in a box that David's wife, Madge, had given her. Madge had been too heartbroken to go through the letters herself, so she had entrusted Angela with the task. I was hesitant when Angela sent me an e-mail asking if I wanted to see the letter. But curiosity got the better of me, and I called the number under her office address at the University of Connecticut.

"Hello Angela, how are you?" I’d said. "Thank you for telling me about the letter. I'm busy right now, so maybe you could open the letter, scan it, and send it to me?"

Despite being 5,000 miles and eight time zones away, I could hear the shock in her voice. "With all due respect, Dr. Holloway, I couldn't do that. It wouldn’t be right.”

"But I'm giving you my permission," I insisted.

"Sir, I can't do that. Whatever is in the letter is between you and Mr. Lawrence. It's a part of his legacy, and I think you should experience it as he intended. Do you still want me to send you the letter?"

"Sure," I said and gave her my address.

And now, here it was in my hands in a hotel so far from home. Maybe I should tear it up and pretend nothing happened, I thought. But then It would have been just as bad as asking Angela to open the letter for me. I had to face the contents of this letter, whatever they might be.

I look at the extra stamps Angela has added in the 20 years since the letter was written. Then I trace with my fingers the lines of his script and David’s trademark caricature of his profile on the back of the envelope.

Why was I doing this to myself? I didn't need his approval or disapproval now.

And where was he when I was the only black student in an all-white college? Where was he on those nights I couldn’t sleep because I was afraid everything would come crashing down around me and I’d be called a fraud? Where was he when I faced all those rejections writing for local magazines and newspapers? But I kept stretching myself, submitting to prestigious literary journals and pitching stories to major publishers. But no, he had to go and kill himself.

After a deep breath, I use the letter opener on the pad beside the writing pad on the desk. It was a quaint touch that I admired, as if anyone wrote letters by hand these days.

I carefully slide the letter opener beneath the envelope flap, my heart racing. The sound of tearing fills the room, and I pause. My fingers are trembling. I unfold the letter, the paper crackling as I smooth it out on the desk.

As I open the letter, I can see David in his office -- a cup of black coffee near his right hand with cigarette smoke swirling around him while he pecked away at his typewriter; the creak of the old wooden floorboards beneath my feet when he stayed so many times after class, patiently helping me with a story where I couldn’t figure out the theme or the hero’s motivation.

David’s scrawl jumped at me—the words etched into the page with the same intensity I recognized from countless drafts he had covered in notes on my stories.

Dear Marcus,

Your letters drive me crazy: “It has been painful for me to realize that you have no answers.”

Here are my answers.


1. Be here. Now.

2. We have no rights and infinite obligations.

3. Some things are right, and some things are wrong. If you’re sure you know the difference, you’re probably seriously disturbed.

4. I am entirely responsible for my own actions.

5. The success of any day is measurable by the number of people you touch efficiently.

6. All problems are structural. All solutions are about form/process.

7. Stop complaining. Choose.

8. If you can’t be interesting, shut up.

9. Get a tough skin, or get out of the game.

10. Win.

I send them to you in this form because it is no longer fashionable to write on stone. If they don’t work for you, find your own damn mountain.

And then I see the words that catch my breath:

"Of course, you are a writer. You juggle language compulsively. And then edit the surpises that happen when they fall into new statements. Sometimes that's the best part about teaching--the feeling that, after all, you didn't get in the way. It’s going to be wonderful watching you learn more than I know. I can't wait to see where your writing journey takes you next..."

I can't hold it together anymore. The letter falls from my hand and onto the floor, and I am bawling.

I would have stayed there crying, but a knock on the door stops me. Pulling myself together, I couldn't help but think, what if I'd gotten the letter twenty years ago? How would it have changed me?

"Are you OK, Dr. Holloway? The driver is waiting for you downstairs," the bellman calls through the door.

"I'll be right down.”

I take a deep breath, wiping the tears from my face with my hand. I tuck the letter into my pocket, close to my heart, and stand straight, ready to face the world. Again.

"Ten Days in Turkey":

Short Story

About the Creator

Geoffrey Philp

I am a Jamaican writer. I write poems (haiku & haibun), stories & essays about climate change, Marcus Garvey, music icons such as Bob Marley, and the craft of writing. For more info, visit my webpage:

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Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

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    Well-structured & engaging content

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Comments (7)

  • Teresa Renton3 months ago

    Highly engaging story Geoffrey! You created incredible suspense around the letter. Hooked! I love how you’ve obviously embraced the wisdom from the letter and continued to write. You can’t be selfish with your wonderful words; share nicely 😉 🥰

  • Christy Munson3 months ago

    Heartbreaking. You've reached such lovely, heart wrenching depths in this work. Loved it.

  • Cathy holmes3 months ago

    This is beautifully written. It was engaging, emotional and contains some great lesson in the form of the letter. You certainly are a writer. Well done.

  • I loved the slow build of suspense to the opening of the letter and the reveal that as writers we have no choice but to keep on writing , keep on having confidence in our own abilities, no matter our Internal angst.

  • I loved the building of suspense to the opening of the letter and the ultimate reveal that as writers we have no choice but to write and continue believing in ourselves.

  • Insightful to the repose of a fiction story unfolded in 60 seconds!! Feel free to enjoy my work as a piet , writer, and entrepreneur!!

Geoffrey Philp Written by Geoffrey Philp

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